We made a club without her. Mary was the president because her father built the tree house. Lindsay was the vice-president because she was Mary’s best friend. That left me as the combined secretary and treasurer, responsible for organizing the drink stand at the end of Mary’s driveway. We sold mixed-berry Kool-Aid for fifty cents a cup, along with the friendship bracelets we knotted while we talked about Theresa Scott.
Theresa ran across the street with a dollar and the desire to buy a friendship bracelet. “Five dollars,” Lindsay said, attempting to cover the sign with her arm before Theresa could read it.
“That’s not what it says.”
“Five dollars for you,” Mary said.
“Where am I supposed to get five dollars?” Theresa waited for an answer and when we gave her none she said, “Fine. I’ll ask my dad.”
We figured he didn’t live with her because we never saw him come out of her house, though Lindsay joked about him locked up in their basement. Theresa said, “My dad could buy me a way better bracelet than anything you’ve got here.”
“So what,” Mary said.
Theresa went on about how her father lived in LA and designed special effects for movies. She was going to live with him once she started junior high.
Lindsay said, “Maybe you should move there right now.” Theresa kicked the table, toppling the plastic pitcher. The Kool-Aid stained the pavement until the next time it rained.
Theresa turned to me and said, “See you tomorrow, Sarah,” and went home.
Lindsay and Mary stared at me. I shrugged.
I had no idea what Theresa wanted from me in that.
That evening, I went to Lindsay’s house. She stole one of her mother’s thank you cards and I wrote out a message in my most adult-script: Dear Theresa, thank you for being such a great daughter. I bought a puppy today and I want you to name him. Maybe you can come live with me this year? Miss you, Dad.
We spent the next afternoon watching Theresa’s mailbox from Mary’s bedroom. Theresa was sitting on the porch when the mailman arrived. He didn’t see her sitting there but went straight to the mailbox at the end of their driveway. When he pulled out the letter, I realized that I forgot to write an address or stick a stamp onto the envelope. He flipped it over, puzzled, and then gave Theresa the letter along with the rest of the mail. “Here we go,” Mary said as Theresa opened the envelope. A few moments passed before she looked up, straight at us, and went into the house while she left the other mail in a pile on the porch. That was the last time we saw her until school started.
The three of us requested Mr. Villanueva for fifth grade. His wife managed a card shop at the mall, so he celebrated all the card shop holidays. On Doctor’s Day, his class took a field trip to the hospital. On Secretary’s Day they presented a fruit basket for Miss Redman and her assistants. On Administrative Professionals Day, his class performed for the principal an appropriately edited version of Jimi Hendrix’s, “Are You Experienced?”
Mrs. Harper, the other fourth grade teacher, was also known as “Mrs. Harpy.”
My mother took my brother and me to school on that first day and stayed to help out in Timmy’s kindergarten class. Our classroom assignments were posted near the entrance of the auditorium. Mary and Lindsay found their names under Mrs. Harper’s and though I was pleased to get Mr. Villanueva, I was not pleased to share him with Theresa Scott. She was sitting in the front row of his classroom surrounded by unoccupied desks. I sat in the back.
After we each shared our names and favorite holidays, Mr. Villanueva announced that our first assignment would be to interview each other about our grandparents because the Sunday after Labor Day was Grandparents Day. Once he’d explained the project, he led us to the auditorium. Theresa jumped beside me in line and asked if I wanted to be her partner. I told her I wasn’t sure; I hadn’t thought about a partner. She said, “I don’t like anyone else in the class.”
“All right,” I said.
In the auditorium, I slid away from her and took the seat Lindsay saved for me in the third row. Theresa stood near the entrance, searching for a place to sit. Mary shook her head. Theresa looked like she was about to cry. I’d almost forgotten about my mother until she came in at the end of Miss Lee’s procession of five year olds holding hands. She motioned for Theresa to sit with her. Any other kid would have refused to sit with kindergartners but Theresa didn’t seem to mind.
“Looks like somebody’s found a friend,” Mary said, nudging me.
My mom might have been mad at me for making Theresa sit by herself.
Miss Lee played the school song on the piano while the fifth graders shouted their version from the back corner. Yes it’s possible! became It’s impossible: It’s impossible at the McClellan! It’s impossible at McClellan! It’s impossible at McClellan school! I looked at my mother to see if she could hear them. She didn’t show it. Miss Jones, our principal, had noticed. “What’s possible is up to you,” she said, attempting to inspire us. The adults were the only ones to applaud the speech. After we were dismissed, the adults had to scream over us as we rushed to the aisles.
My mother waited at the end of our row and announced that it was good of me to ask Theresa to be my partner for the Grandparents Day project. Theresa left. “She’s really a nice girl,” my mother said with a sermon in her voice. She said that she invited Theresa over for pizza. “You girls can join us,” she said to Lindsay and Mary. “We can have a school’s back pizza party.”
“No thanks,” Mary said.
Lindsay said, what a coincidence, they were having pizza her house that night. “I guess you can’t come,” she said to me. “Bummer.”
“Next time,” I said and swallowed hard.
My mother said, “I asked Theresa what kind of pizza she wanted and do you know what she said after that? Do you know why she likes pepperoni?” We waited for the punch line. “Because they’re the easiest to pick off!” Mary laughed, I figured more at my misfortune than at Theresa’s joke, and this encouraged my mother to ramble on about how pizza was pretty much the only option in our house that night because there was no way she was going cook after a day in Timmy’s class.
As she was going on, Lindsay whispered that maybe Theresa would let me pick her pepperonis off. My mother must have heard. “I’m going to order plain cheese,” she said, “and ask Dad to pick them up on his way out.”
She returned to Timmy’s class and I didn’t know what was worse, that she’d invited Theresa over or that she brought up my father’s work. He managed a supermarket meat department. Mary liked to make fun this, sometimes referring to him as “The Butcher” or asking me how many cows he’d slaughtered that day. Mr. McGregory and Mr. Edmonds both worked for Blue Cross, which meant she and Lindsay got to dress up for Take Your Daughter to Work Day; I never got to participate in that because my father said there was too much commotion at his job. Not that I wanted to watch him show people how to slice slabs of meat. On our way back to the lockers, Mary said, “Maybe your dad can get a deal on pepperonis for Theresa.” She and Lindsay burst out laughing.
“This is going to be a long year,” I said, and blurted out that I’d agreed to be Theresa’s partner Grandparent’s Day.
“At least your class doesn’t have assigned seating,” Lindsay said. “The Harpy won’t even let us choose where we sit.”
Theresa and her mother came for dinner. They brought daisies from their yard. The bouquet also had dandelions in it; my mom acknowledged these as “interesting” while she arranged them into a vase and set it on the dining room table. We ate in the den so we could watch the documentary Mrs. Scott brought over about life of Woody Guthrie. I’d never heard of him. Theresa and her mother sang along with all the songs. My father asked her how Theresa knew them and she said, “I thought everybody did.”
Mrs. Scott explained that Theresa had inherited her taste in music from her parents–her father was a blues guitarist. “Her favorite is Bob Dylan,” she said.
“The old Bob Dylan,” Theresa said. “Before he went electric.”
I cleaned up the plates–paper, as usual–and as I took Mrs. Scott’s away, she asked if I was going to recycle it. “We really should start doing that,” my mother said, and Mrs. Scott offered to show her how to make a compost pile in the backyard. I wasn’t sure my mother knew what a compost pile was–I certainly didn’t–but she said it sounded “interesting” in the same way she’d referred to the dandelions.
That’s when she and my dad got out their cigarettes. This was why I hardly invited Lindsay and Mary to our house; my parents were unapologetic about their smoking. Mrs. Scott covered her mouth but didn’t say anything. Theresa, on the other hand, exaggerated some coughs and told my parents that they were going to die. “It’s only a matter of time,” she said.
“We’re all going to die in a matter of time,” said my father.
“Have you ever seen a photo of smoking lungs?” she asked. They said they had.
If my parents were unapologetic about their smoking, Mrs. Scott was unapologetic about Theresa. “We’ve seen a lot of those pictures,” she said. “Before we buried Theresa’s father last year.”
“I’m sorry,” my mother said. “Cancer?” Mrs. Scott nodded and they put out their cigarettes.
Theresa grabbed her backpack and went to the back hallway without asking me where my room was. I followed her. We sat on my bed and she asked why I let my parents smoke. I said I didn’t know. “Maybe your parents will both die and you can come live with me,” she said.
I said, “I had no idea about your dad.”
Theresa pulled out a notebook and a pencil from her bag. “Don’t tell Mary and Lindsay.” I told her I wouldn’t.
The notebook was a sort of scrapbook she was making with her mother. They’d pasted a Polaroid on the inside cover of her dad showing her how to play the guitar. Her hair was long then, and so was her dad’s–he had a ponytail. I told her I didn’t understand why she had to make up the stuff about living in LA; wasn’t a musician cool enough?
She smoothed the page as if to show it off and spoke of her father–his band and the dive bars where she watched him play since before she could speak, the time he played at the Jazz festival downtown.
“I sometimes hate my dad,” I told her. I readjusted my seat on the bed. “Well, not him,” I said. “I hate his job.” She asked where he worked and I told her.
“Do you get free samples?” she asked. “I always want to grab free samples and my mom says I can’t because they’re processed.” Without looking for my reaction, she took me through rest of the pages–scotch-taped clippings of recipes for vegetarian casseroles, a brown blade of grass from her old house, and the ticket stub from a Bob Dylan concert.
“You must have been the youngest person there,” I said when she showed it to me. “But you’re so tall, probably nobody noticed.”
“It’s hard looking twice your age,” Theresa said. She stopped at a picture of her grandparents when they were young. “You can pass it around the class,” she said, peeling it free from the scotch tape without ripping the page.
I told Theresa that I only had grandmothers, that both of my grandpas died before I was born. She asked me what they died of. I didn’t know. “They were probably alcoholics,” she said. “Both my grandfathers were.” She told me the one on her dad’s side died of liver poisoning while her other grandfather was still alive and retired from Ford. I told her one of my grandfathers worked at Ford, too, though I couldn’t remember which one. Later, we’d find out that just about everybody’s grandpa in the class had worked for one car company or another.
I grabbed my own notebook, a boring spiral, as Theresa told me that her dad’s parents were dancers and that her dad grew up in Brooklyn. Her grandpa was in twenty-three Broadway shows before his career ended, and once it did, he took up smoking and tried to write musicals of his own that didn’t go anywhere. She told me her own mother moved to New York after college and met her father. Her mom got pregnant and her parents never married. They moved to Livonia and she spent the first few years of her life living with her mom’s parents–the ones in the picture. She pointed to the living room and said, “I’m so mad we moved. I hate it here.”
I believed very little of this, but for some reason, that much didn’t matter to me. I believed in the idea of it all, in the possibility—Theresa somehow convinced me that this was enough.
On the Friday before Grandparents Day, some of the kids passed around photographs, cookie recipes, knitted caps, and war medals. I gave Theresa a photo of my maternal grandmother holding me at the piano. I thought she might like it. Theresa told everyone that my grandma was a concert pianist. She told them my grandpa was an army general and died in the war. Mr. Villanueva asked her which one; she said she didn’t know, so he asked me. With my eyes on my notebook, I said I wasn’t sure. He asked when my grandpa was born but I didn’t know that either.
When I spoke about Theresa’s family, I found myself caught up in the details she mentioned about her parents, how her mother moved from Detroit to New York and met her father. I even added a part where they all tried to live in LA and be a part of his life in the movies. These details seemed to hold my classmates’ attention more than the other presentations. Then I remembered that I only had five minutes and I hadn’t mentioned her grandparents, so I spoke of their Broadway careers. I threw in a detail about how Theresa rode the subway by herself all the way across the city. At that moment, Theresa seemed more important than the rest of us. It was clear she was destined for more than any of us could predict for ourselves. I ended the presentation by saying, “Theresa will probably be famous one day.”
But then she opened her eyes and smiled, her crooked teeth poking from her lips, and I wanted to take those words back.
At lunchtime, I left the room before Theresa could say anything and met Lindsay and Mary in the cafeteria. We filled our trays with Friday’s cheeseburgers and juice boxes and took our usual seats at the table nearest to the door. Theresa, who always brought a tattered paper bag to lunch, sat next to me. I didn’t look up at her.
“Don’t even think about it,” Mary said.
“There’s no assigned seats,” said Theresa, taking a lid off a Tupperware container filled with browning apple slices. “Sarah’s my friend and I want to sit with her.”
“She’s not your friend,” Lindsay said.
“Find another table,” Theresa said through a mouth full of apple slices.
“Sarah is not your friend,” Mary said, “And we don’t eat lunch with people who have nasty teeth.”
Theresa slid a turkey sandwich out of an old Zip-lock bag. The bread was soggy in the middle from mustard, and she tore off a piece and balled it in her fingertips before tossing it into her mouth.
“You’re gross,” Lindsay said.
“And annoying,” I said. I told her that just because she forced me to be her partner for Grandparents Day did not make me her friend and that I never wanted to be her partner again.
Mary and Lindsay laughed and Theresa told them to shut up, that I was her friend and that I told everyone in our class that she was going to be famous.
“That’s not what I meant,” I said. “It doesn’t matter. You can be famous all you want but you’ll still be weird.” I waited, expecting her to kick the table as she’d done before.
She said, “At least I have a grandpa.”
I said, “At least I have a dad.”
“You hate your dad,” Theresa said, tearing her paper bag in half. “Everybody hates him because he’s gross. He smells like cigarettes and sausage. He kills baby cows–”
“He does not,” I said.
“You hate Mary and Lindsay,” Theresa said. “Sarah said she hates you. She said you were snobs.”
I shoved the pieces of the bag in her face as she grabbed the front of my shirt with both of her fists, lifted me from my seat, and slammed me to the floor. I yanked her hair as hard as I could, which wasn’t too hard because her hair was so short. “At least I don’t lie about my dead dad,” I said, shouting for everyone in the cafeteria to hear. Theresa paused long enough for me to clutch her shirt, roll her to her side, and slam her skinny arm into the bench. I looked up and found Mary and Lindsay standing over us. They were cheering, not for me or Theresa, but for both of us to fight. I stood as soon as I heard her name.
Theresa must have heard it, too, and it must have empowered her to pin me down and hit my face with repeated blows. It took two lunch ladies to get her off of me, and by that time, my nose was bleeding. The lunch ladies sent us both to see the principal while Miss Re dman called our mothers to come pick us up.
Miss Jones was on break and wouldn’t be back for another forty-five minutes. While we waited, the janitor held a paper towel to my nose. Theresa sat as far away from me on the bench as she could. I spent most of that hour checking out the state of my face in the reflection of the curtained window in the door to Miss Jones’s office. I had a bloody nose and a busted upper lip. Miss Jones unlocked her office, shaking her head. “Sarah Mason. Theresa Scott. I didn’t expect this to be about you.” She talked to Theresa alone for a while. At one point, Mary and Lindsay peeked around the hallway corner and left without saying anything. It would be a long time before we’d say anything to each other again; they became friends with the girls in their class.
Miss Jones invited me to take the seat next to Theresa. “It sounds to me like you girls know how to hurt each other,” she said. She told us that we should think about the things we like about each other, that we were both smart and nice and if we wanted to, we could probably be good friends.
“I don’t want to be her friend,” Theresa said.
“You might change your mind if you got to know her.”
“I won’t change my mind.”
“That’s fine,” I said.
Miss Jones put her hands on her knees and leaned in a little. For now, she said, it was okay to just avoid each other. When she let us go, my mother was waiting outside the of fice with my brother. She offered to drive Theresa home.
“I’d rather swallow glass,” Theresa said, and sat on the bench to wait for her own mother. It’s last thing I can remember her saying to my face, though she’d say plenty about me behind my back. Whether it was her beating me up, or what I’d said about her during the presentation, I don’t know, but after that, she would be the most popular kid in our class.
On the way home, my mother asked me where I thought Theresa picked up such an ugly thing to say. My brother asked her to repeat it but she refused. “She’s a strange girl,” she said, and then, “Poor thing.” I found myself looking for Theresa as we passed her house, even though we left before she did, as if maybe she’d be on the porch waiting for me. I looked for her in the side view mirror but could only see the discolorations of my face, the unfamiliar lines that, if you had shown me a photo of them hours before, I would not have recognized as me.
Nora Bonner is a PhD student at Georgia State University. Her work has appeared in the North American Review, the Bellingham Review, Hobart, Shenandoah, and elsewhere. She is originally from Detroit.